Even with Jimmy Butler out with right knee inflammation and with Kyle Lowry missing his second game in a row with a left hamstring strain, the Hawks couldn’t force a Game 6. In fairness, they were missing wing Bogdan Bogdanovic to right knee soreness, had to pull center Clint Capela as the same right knee he had hyperextended in the play-in flared up and power forward John Collins has been banged up for months.
The Hawks battled but in the end lost to the better team.
“We can give in, say it’s too hard, we can give up and quit or we can give all we got,” McMillan said of the Hawks after the Game 5 defeat. “I felt like they gave me all they had.”
A year after making a thrilling run to the Eastern Conference finals, a franchise-revitalizing achievement after rebuilding efforts, the Hawks had to fight tooth and nail just to reach the playoffs, finishing ninth in the East before winning two play-in tournament games. Then, they got bounced in the first round. Yes, the eight-seed is expected to lose to the one-seed, but the way the Heat shut down Trae Young and an offense that was so prolific in the regular season was tough to watch and prompts questions about the ceiling of the team.
As rough a series as it was for the Hawks, with some roster flaws exposed and the curtain pulled back on just how much work and effort it takes to win at a high level consistently, there are quite a few ways the Hawks can learn from it moving forward. General manager Travis Schlenk’s message to players in exit interviews was essentially this: The Hawks came into this season feeling like they were a good team, but that’s not all it takes to reach your goals.
“It took a while for us to understand that even though you’re a good team, you have to show up and give that consistent effort every game,” Schlenk said Wednesday, addressing the media in an exit interview of his own. “I think that’s what we saw in the first half of the season. Second half of the season, they told me 26-14 or something we finished the last 40 games. We feel we’re closer to that kind of team than we were the first half of the season, but it felt like we didn’t show up and give that effort every single night the first half of the season. That’s disappointing, but the bright side is, we learn from it and hopefully won’t have to deal with it moving forward.”
“Coming into the draft, I wasn't expected to do a lot. So to have these expectations on myself and on this team, to be honest, I love it. It's a joy, and it's a challenge. And it's a challenge I'm going to try to accept and try to take it to another level."
- Hawks star Trae Young
Reflecting on the Hawks’ season as a whole, Danilo Gallinari added at exit interviews: “You can’t relax. You can’t expect to win games just because last year you had an amazing season.”
Losing to the Heat exposed the Hawks’ need for better ballhandling and creation, perhaps a reliable second star or a guy who can find his own shot alongside Young, with the entire season emphasizing a need for more go-to defenders. Miami played much more physical than the Hawks, one of the many ways in which it dominated the series.
In January, the Hawks parted ways with Cam Reddish, who was meant to be an athletic, disruptive wing to cover for Young on defense, with him regressing and having asked for a trade in the offseason. Hunter also was meant to be a central figure on defense when the Hawks drafted him, but he has struggled to stay healthy, regressed as a ballhandler this season and was up-and-down on defense, though he clearly still has potential.
But, this season also highlighted the winning mindset the Hawks need to be successful, as opposed to a sense of complacency that seemed to plague them, with Bogdanovic and Collins basically outright saying as much in early January.
“I think we’re taking that for granted like we’re going to win because we were winning (last year),” Bogdanovic said after the Hawks’ loss to the Clippers on Jan. 9 in Los Angeles. “That shouldn’t be the mindset.”
“For any of that to matter, we’ve got to care,” Collins said after a loss to the Lakers on Jan. 7, on if the Hawks’ depth could help them turn around the season.
This season began as a disappointment, and the Hawks could never quite get on track enough to make it feel like anything different. They started the season 4-9 thanks in part to poor defense and poor shot selection as a rotation that turned out to be too deep tried to find a shooting rhythm.
After a loss in Philadelphia on Oct. 30, Young made a comment about the regular season being “boring” compared with the playoffs, and although his larger point was about the Hawks needing to find motivation and treat every game like it’s do-or-die like the postseason, a soundbite like that makes it sound like you’re not taking each regular-season game as seriously as you should.
He also mentioned the Hawks were the “hunted” now, as opposed to the “hunters,” and needed to be more ready to play from the beginning of games. That point makes sense insofar as teams were far less likely to underestimate the Hawks this season, but if you didn’t win it all, you’re probably still in the “hunters” category. Even if you do win it all, you still have to hunt for it again the next season as the slate wipes clean.
They fell to 17-25 on Jan. 15 after COVID-19 upended the roster for about a month, the one stretch of the season when the reason behind their struggles was beyond their control. The Hawks faced adversity this season, for sure, and got the short end of the stick by not getting any games canceled on their own account, despite the roster basically looking like the G League for a while there.
“I mean, honestly, you sit back and reflect for a second on the whole season and the big picture and just look at where we came this year and what we all had to battle through to get where we ended,” Young said after the Hawks’ Game 5 loss Tuesday.
“Obviously, we wish we could’ve finished stronger and won more games and went further. But what we did this year with everything we went through, battle-tested, the play-in, playing two good teams, then going on the road and winning with some guys down, I think it just shows that we fought all year and we fought to the end.”
Young added at exit interviews Wednesday: “To be honest with you, I already watched the game (film). I’m very motivated right now. ... One thing I can take away from this year is understanding that expectations of me and this team are higher. Coming into the draft, I wasn’t expected to do a lot. So to have these expectations on myself and on this team, to be honest, I love it. It’s a joy, and it’s a challenge. And it’s a challenge I’m going to try to accept and try to take it to another level.”
The Hawks have plenty to sort through in the offseason and have just gotten an up-close example of a team growing in a nonlinear way, and bouncing back quickly from a disappointing first-round exit: the Heat themselves, swept by the Bucks last year before finishing as the top seed in the East this year with a 53-29 record.
“Miami was in the Finals two years ago; last year they get swept in the first round of the playoffs,” Schlenk said. “I told the guys that this year as well. The NBA, for the most part, is not linear; it’s ups and downs, each season has its own life, so to speak. We’re always going to look to improve. This series, Miami is a lot like Milwaukee in a sense. Very physical, big defenders. We saw that last year, a switching defense, those are things we have to continue to work to get better at.”